« Neo-Neo-Colonialism? | Main | Fareed Zakaria: ‘What [Bush] Needs Is a Therapist’ »

December 13, 2006

Reflections on a Silent Meditation Retreat

Before I jump into writing on politics again, I want to share my reflections on the silent retreat I was at last week and muse on how it effects my writing on politics.

Before I do that, I want to thank Jon and Jeff for jumping in last week while I was away and entreat them to keep writing, even with my return.  I also want to welcome my friend, shoephone, to the blog.  Shoephone is a regular commenter on many of the blogs, national and local, and I asked her if she’d step in with a post or two in my absence.  She wrote a nice piece on the Air Force’s new Active Denial System (ADS), a pretty scary new technology to control crowds.  She has indicated she will continue to write here and I look forward to reading her posts when she does.

Now, the reflections:

First, being away in a beautiful environment with meals cooked for you and plenty of time to just “be” is an enormous luxury.  People who have no idea what a silent retreat is tell me how much they appreciate that I had the opportunity to be away from all that bombards us every day.

The conference center that the retreat was held at was across the street from a beautiful beach in Pacific Grove.  The weather was lovely, if chilly, and I walked on the beach twice a day and went out to soak up the view of the ocean from a couple hundred yards away many other times during the day.  I saw a seal up close once, pelicans swooping along the crests of the waves all the time, dozens of human seals in their wet suits with their surfboards trying to find the right wave, frisky dogs and many fellow walkers and sitters. 

In the routine I developed for myself, I skipped two of the three optional meditation sessions each afternoon and used the time to nap or meditate on my own on the small lanai outside my room. I wrote a bit in a journal but there was no reading allowed.  I really caught up on my sleep.

Inside the cavernous meditation hall, I sat quietly with the other 300 attendees during the required morning and evening meditation sessions and sat one of the optional afternoon sessions.  The meditation hall was also where the teacher, Adyashanti, held a 2-hour satsang once each in the morning and the evening.  Listening to him talk and dialogue with the folks who asked him questions was why we were all there.   The meditation and quiet time was what allowed us to digest what he said, work with whatever came up for us individually and sometimes, more as the week went on, just be blessedly quiet in our minds.

So what’s the point of doing this?  What did I get out of it besides some wonderful quiet time in a beautiful place?

1.    Hearing truth.  The first time I heard Adyashanti I knew he was my teacher, although I’d never thought I was a teacher kind of person.  The truth of what he said resonated throughout my body and has ever since.  With Adya, the truth comes with great humor and humility, which makes it pretty easy to absorb.  He brings in wisdom teachings from many traditions; he tells stories on himself; he talks about the same thing from many different angles.  Some hear the word “truth” better, others “spirit” or “consciousness”.

2.    Some clarity on my transition over the last three years.  Adya talks about dismantling our egos and our identity basically (my words here) because they inhibit our freedom to be part of a larger consciousness.  Shortly after I first heard him talk, I had two dreams about losing my wallet with all my identification.  I mentioned this recently to some folks who had also been following Adya for awhile, and they all nodded at this.  I guess it’s pretty familiar.  Anyhow it represented what in fact has happened to me as I found myself leaving a fairly successful career and moving from the Bay Area back home to Seattle to do politics, whatever that might look like.

Adya talked about how the ego flairs up, dies down, flairs up again but how the oomph seems to go out of it over time once that process begins.  I have sometimes wondered if I came up here and just reconstructed a new, different ego and identity in place of the old one.  But as he talked, I realized that although that is to some extent true, it hasn’t taken hold of my being in the same way as before.  I have more freedom to just be present in a given situation, to not have to be in the role of a blogger or someone who connects to the Democrats or is a friend or a sister or an aunt, although that last one may be the hardest to stay free in.

3.    Remembering how to meditate.  I meditated for a dozen years, just sitting at the foot of my bed, before I encountered Buddhism in its new, westernized form.  Then I practiced in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for many years.  Then I found Adya.  Then a couple years ago, my cat died and I quit meditating.  How very odd, you might rightfully say.  But in the last years of my cat’s life he had taken to calling me to meditate.  (Cats really like meditation, go figure).  He would come and sit on my lap every morning when I meditated or sometimes when I was writing and cause me to pause and just sink into being present. We would walk together slowly many evenings in the park near where I used to live.  When he died, I just quit for awhile. 

Then it became hard to remember why and how I had meditated all those years.  And I had not found a sangha (sitting group) to meditate with so I slowly lost the feel for it. 

The first couple of sittings at the retreat were quite difficult for me.  I know how to appear quiet but I was not quiet inside.  Then Adya said something that reminded me of the way I always found meditation to work best for me.  Adya is careful not to tell people how to meditate, for fear of being taken strictly I suspect.  But something he said reminded me of “noticing”.  Stepping back and noticing what my mind is thinking about is a gentle way of realizing where my mind goes.  I might realize that I was planning the menus for Christmas meals, or analyzing a friend’s actions, or trying to feel understood by my sister, or thinking about my knee, or wondering what is for dinner.  Years ago I read a book that a Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, had written about the value of just noticing over the years, and of how it slowly changes our behavior.   Over time, we notice off the cushion as well as on.  It had been the method I used to meditate and I was glad to be reminded of it.

I’ve since begun meditating every morning again.  I remember how and why I do it.

4.    Abiding in silence.  I had the opportunity to pull back from my thoughts for a moment here or there, and then a few moments at a time, and be present with a spaciousness that is bigger than me, that connects me to everything and everyone else around me. 

5.    Remembering not to take things personally.  Adya talks a lot about “conditioning” and how so much of what everyone does is based on their previous experiences.  It helps me put those difficulties I have with other people, generally minor but frustrating nonetheless, in perspective.  Those things that other people do that annoy me or seem needlessly to make their life difficult, which then bumps into my life and I then have to deal with, these things just are.  They are not done intentionally to frustrate me.  The more I can see that and take it in stride, the better off I am, the freer I am.

6.    Noticing that we are so much more similar than we are different.  The weekend I came back, I stopped over in Portland, which is where I do family.  I went with my sister to hear her mother-in-law sing as part of a chorus, at a retirement community.  I was overwhelmed with the sense of connection with this group of people, heaven knows probably more Republican than Democratic, who were sitting stiffly listening to Christmas carols and a cute-but-corny sketch that the group did.  I want to hold on to that awareness of the truth as often as possible, with friends and people I’ve never met alike.   

There’s more of course but that hits the high spots on the personal front.

Now, the political front. 

How does what I heard or realized or remembered impact what I do here in this odd business of writing about politics for a blog that I seem to be called to do?

1.    A welcome break from thinking about politics and the world out there.  I didn’t think a lot about politics during those 5 days and it was a relief not to take any more information in or digest it and figure out how to write it up.  (Okay, I did sneak a glance at the headlines when I was in the gift shop looking for Vitamin C or an energy bar.  I knew that John Bolton had resigned.  I knew that the Iraq Study Group had presented a report.  I didn’t need to read anything to know that Bush had ignored it.)  It reminded me that all that knowledge and opinion I hold in my head can be set aside for awhile, anytime, not just on a retreat.

2.    The reality-based community of bloggers – that image of ourselves and our work that we try to hew to in this new media form we are creating – is akin to looking at what is really in front of us personally rather than holding to some personal ideology or identity.  That focus on what is really true about what is in front of us is valuable.  The election seemed to open up a new sense of freedom for writers to talk about what is important beyond the headlines. 

I have read a bit more in the last few weeks about things we haven’t talked about much about in years – class warfare, feminism, racism, the craziness of our drug policies, unions; there’s been an odd déjà vu quality about it. I’ve even heard the word “hippies” several times, which I’ve decided is a code word for all of the above.  We have an interesting challenge in front of us – how to write about these critical things, and other issues like immigration policy and sustainability that have been in the forefront, in a manner that people can hear so that we can assist in making this country what we want it to be.  And, how to write about them clearly, without having to hold to some “company line”.

3.    I can avoid the ego traps of either the blogging world or the political world.   I don’t have to go to every event or try hard to get known.  I can just do what makes sense to me, what I am called to do.  And I will be happier for it.

4.    Noticing that we are so much more similar than we are different.  Remembering that the opinions that people hold that I may think are thoughtless or mean-spirited or downright wrong are just part of their conditioning.  It’s fine to try to alter their understanding of the world but I want to avoid trying to put things in a “right” or “wrong” frame as much as I can remember to do so.   

I was pleased at how much I brought back from this retreat.  I will be interested to see how much I can keep with me as the memory of that time fades.

Thanks for reading.  Now, back to regular programming.

Posted by Lynn Allen on December 13, 2006 at 09:21 PM in Miscellany | Permalink


hmmmm...no comments eh? I tell you Lynn, this blog doesn't appreciate this side of you. But I do. As your sister, I get to inherit some of the benefits of you doing silent retreats and working with Adya. By osmosis or a flow of energy, as well as your words, I get to hear some of his teaching about conditioning which benefits me because it true for me, but i forget.

I believe that so much of how we act is based on our conditioning, which, when I remember that, makes me realize that people don't do the things I dislike because they are bad people but because they haven't had the space, energy, willingness, whatever to operate outside of that conditioning. When I remember that, it makes me stop blaming them, or me. And I am happier, and then I am more engaging, energetic and thoughtful with other people which of course brings better energy back to me. It is as if we are all one. This is what I consider to be modern thinking of karma.

Posted by: Lisa | Dec 15, 2006 12:04:30 PM

Thank you for having the courage to blog about your personal experiences on retreat. I am so grateful for people who are willing to speak authentically about their spiritual experience and how it informs their social change work, their careers, etc. Especially when it's not generally what they blog about! I'm glad you enjoyed the retreat. I'm looking forward to mine in April at Mount Madonna!

Posted by: Sarah | Dec 15, 2006 2:08:53 PM

Thank you, Lisa. It always helps to get to share what I learned, either in writing or with you and Randy.

And Sarah, thanks for popping in here. Nice blog you have as well. (www.sarahpullman.com). Enjoy your retreat.

Posted by: Lynn | Dec 15, 2006 8:37:19 PM

Lynn - It occurs to me that you might enjoy reading "In Search of the Miraculous" by P.D. Ouspensky.

Posted by: natasha | Dec 19, 2006 3:34:57 AM

Post a comment